In Gelsenkirchen, Ilkay Gundogan’s home town, a relative of the Manchester City star headed out for dinner.
Tucking into his meal, he noticed a gentleman on another table repeatedly peering over.
Gundogan’s relative realised the man was a former member of the German parliament, so he went over to shake his hand. The subsequent conversation chilled him to the core. The politician, supposedly from the centre-left, warned Gundogan’s relative: ‘I hope this situation becomes much worse for you.’
Ilkay Gundogan was booed by many of his own fans against France on Thursday night
He and Mesut Ozil came in for plenty of criticism for this picture with President Erdogan
Weeks earlier, in the build-up to the World Cup, Gundogan’s car was smashed by hooligans near the team hotel in Cologne. And there is no sign of tensions easing. Gundogan was jeered by a section of Germany fans when he came on as a second-half substitute in Thursday’s 0-0 draw with France in Munich.
These are the dismal consequences of the soap opera that has played out in the German national team this summer.
To recap, Gundogan and team-mate Mesut Ozil posed with the Turkish president Tayyip Recep Erdogan during the politician’s state visit to London in May. The fall-out has been explosive, culminating in interventions by German chancellor Angela Merkel and Ozil’s decision to retire from international football.
In doing so, Ozil, the man once hailed by Merkel as the first ‘multi-kulti kicker’ and an emblem of modern Germany, has been deserted by team-mates, isolated by the German Football Association and transformed into a social pariah.
In the industrial heartland of the Ruhr Valley where Ozil was born and educated, opinion has always been split.
Andreas Winkler, the former academy director at local team Rot Weiss-Essen, recalls the many times Ozil was snubbed during trials at Schalke.
Ozil only just made the cut at Schalke before going on to have a stellar career in Europe
Winkler said: ‘Those coaches saw him and said “too thin, not strong enough, the body language” and then only at the last moment they took him.’
Ozil, like Gundogan, was born in Germany but has Turkish heritage. His grandfathers on both sides came to Gelsenkirchen in the mid-1960s and made Germany their home.
In his autobiography, Ozil wrote of his family: ‘They worked conscientiously. Industriously. Hard. Without complaining. They did contract work, often with colds and backaches.’
Ozil grew up in a Bornstrasse apartment block where nine of 10 families were immigrants. Neighbours recall doors falling off hinges and children too frightened to retrieve their bikes for fear of rats.
Christian Krabbe, Ozil’s English teacher and mentor at Bergen Feld school, said: ‘Mesut is a grounded person. He paid for a class trip for his friends to London with his first salary at Schalke aged 17. Most of these kids had never left Gelsenkirchen. He has funded other school trips to London since he joined Arsenal. We went to a Turkish restaurant in Golders Green, where Mesut wrote a card for each student and paid for everything.’
Ozil came from humble beginnings and his family worked hard to build a life in Germany
This summer, Ozil’s character has been forensically pulled apart in Germany. The meeting with Erdogan is controversial on both the left and right of politics. Since a failed coup, Erdogan has mercilessly clamped down on critics, including journalists and academics.
The New York Knicks NBA star Enes Kanter has publicly criticised Erdogan, calling him the ‘Hitler of our century’, while his father has been imprisoned. Yet the price of speaking out is high, with sponsors scared off and Kanter’s family home raided. Another critic, former Turkey striker Hakan Sukur, has taken refuge in California.
Kanter told Sportsmail: ‘We were told by a Nike representative that if they were to sponsor me, they would lose a lot of business in Turkey.
‘I imagine many professional athletes do not comment on things since they cannot afford to lose sponsorship. Erdogan takes pictures with celebrities to show other Turks that he has support of famous people. I do not know whether Ozil and Gundogan like or dislike Erdogan. I do know Erdogan has imprisoned innocent people just to grab power.
‘Many people are scared to show solidarity with the innocent people in Turkey. If Gundogan and Ozil expressed any view other than the mainstream opinion currently in Turkey, they would follow the same fate as me.’
Ozil posed with his Arsenal shirt alongside the controversial Turkish leader in a hotel
Both Ozil and Gundogan were aware that Erdogan would be present at the London hotel in May. Gundogan was criticised for signing a Manchester City shirt to ‘My President’ but this is how Turks address their leader, in the same way as Americans would be expected to say ‘Mr President’. The Queen and Theresa May met with Erdogan the very same day.
A source present at the event said: ‘Mesut and Ilkay went along because it was an event organised by a Turkish charity for vulnerable children. They met the president, not out of particular support for him, but out of respect for the office he holds and for their heritage.’
Both Ozil and Gundogan have family in Turkey, and it is worth considering the consequences if they were to shun Erdogan.
Gundogan came in for criticism after writing, ‘to my president’ on the Manchester City shirt
Wary of the growing storm, Gundogan interrupted his pre-World Cup holiday in Dubai, organising a meeting with Ozil, Joachim Low and DFB officials Oliver Bierhoff and Reinhard Grindel in Berlin.
The players explained their reasoning to the DFB and felt the matter was resolved.
Yet still it rumbled on and the more sinister side of this story has been the response of the German right wing.
The refugee crisis has revived anti-immigration sentiment in Germany and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party this week spiked to second place in the polls following riots in Chemnitz.
There were demands for sponsors to drop Ozil and Gundogan. One politician said the Germany squad contained ‘25 Germans and two goat-f*****s.’ Jorn Konig, the spokesman for sport of the AfD party, said: ‘Ozil and Gundogan should free up two spots on the national team for players who don’t pay more homage to the Turkish president than they do to the German homeland.’
Ozil sparkled in a Germany shirt after making the breakthrough at a young age
He played in this year’s disastrous World Cup before deciding to retire from internationals
Within the German camp at the World Cup, divisions emerged. Low was privately supportive but Ozil and Gundogan hoped for a public show of support from team-mates. Yet little of substance came.
The Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness publicly attacked Ozil and there is a suspicion he lobbied Bierhoff to exclude the pair from the starting line-up at the World Cup. Ozil was dropped to the bench for the victory over Sweden.
For Ozil, tensions boiled over as he traded angry words with German fans following the defeat by Korea. Gundogan has been startled by the toxicity. ‘We thought we belonged here but this has made us question things,’ says one friend. Ozil’s former school, where he has invested over £50,000, reportedly cancelled a visit from him due to fears of consequences from right-wing groups.
Ozil quit international football altogether and he has suggested institutionalised racism infects German football. ‘I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,’ he said. ‘Is it because of Turkey? Is it because I’m a Muslim?’
The 29-year-old suggested institutionalised racism still remains strong in German football
Ozil’s faith guides every facet of his life. He eats right-handed despite being left-handed. This is because the right hand is the pure one, the left for removing dirt. So he brushes his teeth with his left hand. He prays before kick-off in Turkish and says blessings in the dressing room and during the warm-up.
Krabbe, his former teacher, fears Germany would not be safe for Ozil right now. ‘He needs people around him to be safe. People look at him and think “He has money, he is privileged, why does he complain?”
‘This is wrong. People are envious. They see someone having success from a lower level, rags to riches, and dislike it. He is a good man. If he is right or wrong with the allegations, I don’t care. This is how he feels. He uses his platform to say “Not everything is fine. There is a problem”. We should listen.’